A Terrible Cloud of Unknowing

Almost three years on from VW’s monumental lapse of judgement, the only thing that is clear amid the noxious murk is an overwhelming and potentially damaging lack of clarity.

Image credit: greenfleet

Not simply a colossal failure and a swingeing indictment of VW’s corporate culture as espoused by the management style of former chairman, Ferdinand Piëch, the repercussions of VW’s 2015 betrayal are proving even wider and faster-accelerating than anyone might reasonably have anticipated.

The savage irony of course is the fact that as predicted on these pages, VW itself has weathered the fallout with more resilience than many had imagined and that, despite further revelations and ongoing lawsuits, VW management under the current leadership of CEO, Matthias Muller, appear to be successfully transitioning Volkswagen towards a post NOxgate future.

But while the collapse of the Wolfsburg mothership appears to have been greatly exaggerated, the speed in which the malign effects of diesel-based NOx and soot emissions has grown from media cause célèbre to outright paradigm-shift is as alarming for the industry as it is bewildering for the customer.

As anyone in the centre of a dust-cloud can tell you, it’s fiendishly difficult to see with any clarity and therefore the only thing of which we can be certain in the current environment is that there is little or no certainty to be had. We have known for years that all car manufacturers (in concert with a complicit testing regime) have been advertising misleading economy and emissions data – figures it would have been nigh-impossible to replicate in normal daily use.

We also know that, despite the concerted push towards petrol hybrids and full EVs, neither entirely stack up (as yet at least) as fully rounded solutions and come with their own set of user and environment-related issues. Outside of large, developed inner cities, the case for electric becomes increasingly tenuous and will continue to be of a questionable nature until such time as matters of charging infrastructure and generation are robustly addressed. And currently, in these Islands at least, this is palpably not the case.

What is increasingly apparent however is the broader argument in favour of diesel, in any shape or form, is as good as lost. While coming a good three years after the VW revelations and its grubby aftermath, matters are now unfolding with a speed and decisiveness that appears to have paralysed the motor industry. Across Europe, city legislatures have either enacted or are in the process of enacting partial bans on diesel powered vehicles and this week, a decisive ruling seems likely to accelerate matters further.

Having slapped a writ on the municipal authorities of Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia, German environmental lobbyists, Deutsche Umweltilfe have battled the judiciary to authorise diesel bans in the respective regional capitals of Düsseldorf and Stuttgart.

But following an appeal by the respective state legislatures, judgment was batted to the federal administrative court in Leipzig, who earlier this week ruled in favour of bans being enacted. This decision is expected to be a gamechanger. Even a partial ban in Mercedes-Benz and Porsche’s back yard could prove a watershed for both the industry and more importantly, the customer’s belief in diesel as a fuel with a future.

Image credit: buyacar

Nothing is worse for business than uncertainty and right now that is all customers are realistically being offered. Already this is driving such buyers who are prepared to commit one way or another from diesel to petrol and hybrid, especially in markets like the one in the UK, where DERV never quite achieved dominance.

Even in diesel-loyal France (73% of the market in 2012), diesel’s share of the market has slumped to 47% last year. So while in markets such as Italy and the Republic of Ireland, diesel remains predominant, the repercussions of Tuesday’s decision could be both sudden and (for the customer at least), expensive.

Already some manufacturers have publically flung their diesel allegiances overboard. Toyota (perhaps automotive’s canniest operator and never DERV’s greatest proponent) has publically announced it will discontinue diesel powerplants in their future car offerings, while this week it was reported that FCA is about to announce a phasing out of diesel by 2022.

Porsche’s recent decision to remove diesel options from its Macan and Panamera range is, on the surface at least, more of an issue of compliance than outright retraction, (they claim to remain committed) but it’s nonetheless conceivable that with a greater take up of petrol-hybrid models (already making up 50% of Panamera sales), demand will evaporate of its own accord.

Image credit: hypermiler

What begins as an undercurrent, swiftly becomes a torrent. And with spokespeople from several leading financial analyst firms projecting a doomsday scenario for the fuel, the tide against diesel appears overwhelming. An Evercore ISI analyst told reporters in the wake of Tuesday’s ruling, “The result is… damaging to already battered diesel sentiment, which we should see reflected in continued decline in diesel market share and residual value estimates.”

And yet, a staggering lack of clarity for motorists remains. As expected,  the industry and its mouthpiece, the mainstream motor press continue, King Canute-like to make the case for DERV. Meanwhile, Barclays are forecasting diesel’s share of new car production dropping to 27% overall by 2025.

What are motorists to do? Drive the diesel vehicles they purchased in good faith into the ground in the hope that draconian bans will be long in coming, or change out now and try to amortize some value? And in the latter scenario, what next? Petrol? Hybrid? EV? Not only is it difficult to arrive at a definitive, palatable or indeed affordable conclusion, it’s nigh-impossible to proffer any meaningful advice.

Even without the emissions issue, the motor industry is facing an existential crisis. EV development and the unstoppable (if ill-advised) push to full-autonomy would be sufficient to elicit outright panic in most boardrooms. To this add the sort of fundamental change of the kind that occurs once in several generations and the motor industry is faced with an unprecedented set of seemingly intractable challenges.

But this scenario will not be served by a code of Omerta. Silence will not retain customer confidence which is leaching away as Big Auto wrings its hands. Failure to handle this coming crisis will be painfully expensive and potentially life-threatening. Which self-inflicted coup de grace is it to be?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

21 thoughts on “A Terrible Cloud of Unknowing”

  1. Seeing Bernie Ecclestone wants F1 to go electric by 2022 (having sold out, he would wouldn’t he) and constant pressure to lower engine costs, just how much longer can we enjoy the theatre of noisy F1.
    As it is, the ICE is now in beleaguered territory and the investor must be listened to.
    Best of luck Chase Carey.

  2. Looking forward to a cleaner quieter future, my last and only diesel in fifty nine years of motoring was some eighteen years ago in the form of an XM an opportunistic pre -owned purchase.
    I look unkindly upon modern luxury diesels and wonder why owners are attracted to them, economy?
    Hardly since if one can afford purchasing initially why be concerned about fuel economy. A friend and long time diesel advocate likes the torque and shifting gears, I’ve advised him to “grow up and get a life” but at his age of 85 that’s not likely to happen, however he is impressed with the torque of my electric but wonders what he would do with his shift hand, my answer was in future ill ride in the back!

    1. Your old friend is right about the torque. And changing gear might be the most exercise he gets.
      But it’s strangely true, in France at least, that diesel is still chosen so much for lux barges. I think it’s a way of getting one over the state — which is still subsidising diesel at the pump, although that’s being phased out. And the weird logic of having an economical car that costs so much more to buy than a petrol version, whereas you’re considered a spendthrift if you buy petrol (unless for small city cars).

      As the market share of all E-cars is still small, makers are indeed faced with an awkward choice in the interregnum: how much resource to devote to improving petrol?
      Toyota will get it right globally. But most other makers are more regionally focused.

      I did notice when Delta 3 was launched, how massive the power and torque outputs of some of its petrol engines were. Now I see where FCA were trying to go, long before NOXGate.

  3. Pity the consumers (most of us) who have taken the diesel ship since many years… What about future resale values ?Thankfully my only diesel is already 11 yrs old, so no great loss there.
    It’s still surprising the lack of public outrage across Europe against the main diesel proponents… They’ve been selling tin for gold.

    1. One way to look at it is that for a long time diesel did seem to offer advantages over petrol, mainly in the form of fuel economy. So, for a long time manufacturers offered diesel in good faith. As petrol engines have become more efficient (especially the stop-start malarky) the advantage of diesel has been reduced. Further, outside the system of engineering, values changed and also evidence came in about particulates. So, without anything changing about diesels, peoples´ views about the emissions altered to the detriment of lovely, lovely derv. I expect diesels will fade away by push and pull factors: air quality rules in urban areas will forbid their use and annual car certification tests will be made more stringent. I suggest not buying another diesel and going electric unless you want to run a classic car – that´s my worry. Will the relatively few classic vehicles be penalised as if they constitute a big element of the car fleet? Without doing anything, classic cars will become a minority taste very soon. There won´t be any need to legislate against them. The market will do most of the work.

  4. Well, Richard, I’m hoping to get five years or so out of my petrol Lybra, which I wouldn’t have done with a 2.4 JTD.

    1. Less Richard, only due to the banning of diesels from so many cities so soon.

  5. Might I add that outside of cities where people live in a house with a driveway, electric cars make as much sense as petrol ones. They can park and charge their car on their gravelly run-way with no problem about finding and keeping a space. Yes, rural drivers do drive a bit more but how many use a tank of gas a day? The answer is that many if not most rural dwellers could get by with the current ranges of EVs most of the time.

  6. The big elephant in the room is particulate and other emissions from petrol engines. It is already clear that these down-sized, direct injection petrols do not offer any meaningful improvement in fuel economy. Is the story even worse than that?

    The new VW Up GTi is apparently offered with a particulate filter, claimed to reduce particulate emissions by 90%. What about other models not fitted with this filter?

    Following a Golf R in traffic the other day, it was noticeable just how sooty those quad exhaust tips were. Is there another emissions scandal on the horizon?

  7. Leaving aside the carbon dioxide problem, there is also the matter of particles from brake pads and tyres. Research will have to be done to reduce these.
    This discussion exposes my internal conflict: this is a really good time to review the whole private transport concept. I don´t think it has panned out as nicely as might have been expected in 1901.

    1. +1. And there is still the growing (sic!) problem of space usage of the beloved car, regardless of power source.

      A somewhat half-baked debate in Germany about removing the fee for using public transport entirely might appear as to be a steep in the right direction. It is more a case of governmental PR than anything else if not backed by substantial funding improvements.

    2. I´ve looked at the car from two angles, both interesting. The design of cars themselves is what we cover here among other aspects of driving. From another angle, I have examined the effects of cars on cities. The effect has been deleterious without exception. Designing new urban areas for cars means pushing all the buildings away from each other and when you´ve done that there´s no “there” there (as Parker said about Oakland). As pernicious has been adapting existing areas by, for example, making room for car parking. It´s only sunk in for me now that most Danish towns are characterised by a pre-car urban core where the yards behind the rows of buildings have been turned into masses of car parking. And the construction of ring roads around these towns means that one nows sees the “back” of the town which was once not visible if you approached on the ancient roads – all the buildings faced the street. I might want to write an article about it some time.
      As soon as cities were adapted to cars (the 1950s and 1960s was about demolition) and built for cars (subsequent office parks, shopping malls and residential areas) then the goal of pleasant urban spaces was lost.
      I like cars in lots of ways and realising the extent of the harm they´ve done in their name by planners and developers is disquieting.

    3. And then there’s the way in which automotive design informs the streetscape.

      I usually receive belittling smirks when I bring this issue up during discussions with professional car designers, but I remain convinced that the message sent out by much of today’s cars’ design is detrimental not just to the impression one gets of the surroundings of any street, but the overall acceptance of the automobile.

      The threatening, overbearing, aggressive forms and shapes littering our streets do little to win the car favours with the public. And by ‘the public’ I intentionally refer to non-‘car people’. Just imagine seeing an automobile from a child’s perspective (physically as well): An Audi Q7 is even less enamouring a device when seen from a height of one metre or even less.

  8. Kris, yes indeed. Manufacturers often boast that their new model has ‘a more aggressive appearance’. Why is this an attractive feature?

    There are notable exceptions, and the enduring popularity of the Fiat 500 can probably be attributed to its ‘friendly’ appearance.

    Supercars and sports cars win us over with curves, and being low to the ground. ‘Feminimity’ was once considered a worthy quality for car design, yet many women would prefer to drive an assertively aggressive design.

  9. On the wider topic of the environment and what might have been, Chris Marshall’s site might be of interest. In particular, there’s an excellent section about former plans for London’s inner city motorways. http://www.cbrd.co.uk

    I must say that I have a particular dislike of flyovers, as they leave the land around and below them a wasteland.

    Coming back to car development, I think we live in interesting times (in a positive way). Battery and charging technology seems to be developing at a rapid rate, with electric vehicles now reaching the point where range anxiety will soon be a thing of the past. That said, increased electricity use brings its own problems, of course. I think internal combustion engines of some sort will continue for quite a while, whether powered by petrol, or compressed natural gas, etc, in conjunction with other technologies.

    1. Toyota it seems, believes the internal combustion engine has another 30-or so years of developmental life in it. And they have most likely done their homework with more diligence and rigour than just about anyone.

      Another way of looking at this is what developmental pathways were switched off once it was decided that exhaust catalysts and high performance diesel powerplants were the most expedient (and potentially cheapest) solution? And where would the mainstream petrol-powered engine be now had the industry (in concert with politicians) continued unfettered?

      In my mind the existential issues around motor vehicles is a slightly different one to the fact of their existence and perceived need. By my reckoning, this will be (most likely imperfectly) addressed as cities push to rid their centres of motor vehicles (of any stripe) entirely.

      The mainstream auto industry has been in a state of denial for decades and I fear will only wake up to reality once it’s too late for them to meaningfully shape the debate.

  10. The way they’ll try to shape the debate will be the low trick of saying: “You don’t want the loss of XX,000 jobs happening on your political watch, do you?”

    I’m not against saving jobs, but these lazy dullards will have passed up the chance of replacing one kind of job with another.

    1. The answer to that is to suggest the firms re-train their labour force as to produce the new thing. If they carry on making the old then those XX,000 jobs definitely will be lost.

    2. In my scenario, the makers would have developed no up-to-date vehicles, and in any case retraining would take too long even if they had. These are the dinosaurs who will go to the wall.

  11. “And where would the mainstream petrol-powered engine be now had the industry (in concert with politicians) continued unfettered?”

    Probably where it is now. Europe is not the only place with half-decent engineers. Both the US and Japanese manufacturers have been developing the petrol engine all along, dragging the German Big 3 along if they wanted to sell in overseas markets.

    Europe was 18 years late in requiring catalytic converters with the change to lead-free petrol. That was 1992, and that’s when the dive into turbo-diesels really began in Europe, concommitant with the more favourable tax regime for diesel fuel.

    Pretty near every car maker is going to be fitting particulate filters for direct-injection petrol in the next couple of years, so that’s a non-issue. Toyota led the way out of the VW/Audi fiasco of early FSI/TSI direct injection petrols which completely sludged up intake manifolds, camshaft chambers and coked intake valves. They invented dual port/direct-injection to keep valves clean, and decently dimensioned EGR pathways with sludge filters. The system is called D4-S. VW copied it in 2011 or so for some engines, but in yet another stunning move of abject cheap mediocrity, has not put it on their EA888 engines for North American markets. DI only, thanks so much, Ferdy. Even the Ford F150 truck turbo engines have dual injection now.

    The other effect that diminished diesel fuel usage will have, will be putting the refinery business off course. As things now stand, excess petrol from Europe is tankered to the US, while excess diesel is sent back. If everyone soon wants petrol, then excess diesel will have to be further refined to petrol to meet demand on both sides of the Atlantic.

    If the Euro manufacturers had actually coped honestly with NOx emissions from diesel, or had submitted proper technical analyses in objection each time some EU bureaucrat decreed lower emissions, rather than inventing criminal ways to beating testing regimes, everyone would not be in the current pickle. And that’s a fact. Since it is entirely possible to ameliorate NOx emissions almost 100% with sufficient urea injection, that solution could have been implemented, much as it is on large trucks and buses. Remember that the University of Leeds in their roadside emission testing found in 2015 that a typical diesel car was far dirtier than a big artic, which is ridiculous. Easily searchable online. Just for the want of not so parsimonious urea injection on the cars and VW lies on clean diesel from 2009, Europe is where it is now.

    A housekeeping note: “publically” is incorrect usage whether in the UK or US. The correct spelling is “publicly”.

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