It started with the Arab oil embargoes in the 1970’s. Suddenly a world economy based on incredibly cheap fossil fuels was faced with incredibly expensive fossil fuels. Why, in some places people in the US were required to pay over $1.00 a gallon for gasoline. Talk about shock and awe! Europe responded by enacting a series of policies designed to encourage people to buy diesel powered cars. The policies worked so well that more than half of all new cars on the Continent soon came with compression ignition engines under their hoods.
The policy is a classic example of good intentions leading to unexpectedly bad results. No one was thinking about emissions back then. Diesel engines are more efficient than gas engines but they also add some nasty pollutants to the air like nitrous oxides and soot. Both of those contribute significantly to smog and have a serious negative impact on human health, but no one cared about that stuff in the 70’s.
Paris, where almost 80% of the cars on the road are diesel powered, has been forced to take drastic action to address it smog problem, banning some older diesels and severely limiting traffic coming into the city on occasion. The issue got major attention last year when the Eiffel Tower disappeared from view on a miasma of haze for several days.
Then came the Volkswagen diesel emissions cheating scandal. Suddenly, diesel powered cars were no longer cool. Politicians and regulators slowly began to pivot away from their policy initiatives that favored diesels — things like lower fuel taxes, lower sales taxes, and lower registration fees. Volkswagen took the brunt of the bad news about diesel cheating but it soon became apparent that all the major car companies were playing fast and loose with emissions testing procedures.
Now the European Union is proposing to crack down on emissions cheaters by putting far tougher rules in place and enforcing them with more aggressive testing protocols, including random unannounced checks. Fines for non-compliance could amount to €30,000 — per car! The cozy relationship between manufacturers and regulators has come to a screeching halt.
Higher costs for diesel powered cars and the threat of tougher testing have sent diesel sales into a tailspin. In Norway, diesel powered cars accounted for three quarters of all new car sales before the Volkswagen diesel emissions bomb went off. Now they are at less than 25% and falling fast — down another 5% in just the past 30 days while sales of plug-in and electric cars skyrocket.
Americans used to shake their heads and wonder why Europeans loved their clattery diesels. A few years ago, I took a road trip with a friend from Annecy, France down to Monaco and back in his diesel powered Opel. We made it a point to drive the back roads through the highest mountain passes in Alps. The higher we climbed and the steeper the grades, the better fuel economy the Opel got and I began to appreciate the benefits of diesel power. The Opel was slow but on roads that have a 1000′ drop off just inches from the edge of the pavement and no guard rails, we weren’t interested in setting any speed records.