Friday, September 25, 2015

"Das Diesel" Gate

Some readers have sent me e-mails questioning my thoughts on the current Volkswagen emissions scandal, so here's a few thoughts on this:

Diesel was a technological dead end even before this case

The absolute record for diesel consumption (without hybrid assistance) of a production model has 16 years, it's in the hands of the 1999 Volkswagen Lupo TDI 3L, which, as the name says, averages three liters of diesel consumption per hundred kilometers.

Comparing the 3L with its gasoline direct competitor, the 1.0 Lupo (5.6l/100kms), not only the diesel version was more powerful (61 PS vs 50 PS), it also saved 2.6 liters every 100 kms! 

In 1999, diesel technology was winning the battle hands down...

As for the current best performer in diesel consumption, incidentally another Volkswagen, the Polo TDI Bluemotion averages 3,1 liters/100km, while its gas brother, the TSI Bluemotion, averages 4.1 l/100kms AND is more powerful than the diesel version (95PS vs 75 PS).

So, 16 years after, the diesel advantage has dropped to only one liter in consumption and is now behind its gasoline counterpart in power...And the Polo TSI Bluemotion isn't even the most fuel sipping gas model, to my knowledge, they are the Kolin brothers (Peugeot 108, Citröen C1 and Toyota Aygo) and Fiat 500 Twinair, with 3,8l.

Best Diesel Sipping car on the road: 1999 VW Lupo TDI 3L

So, what happened to diesels to win in the 90's and how did gasoline engines recovered since then?

Same answer to both: Turbos for power and direct injection for consumption.

Turbos became standard with diesel engines in the 90's, and with the addition of direct injection by the end of the decade, diesel engines ended the decade far more advanced and nicer to drive than gas engines, which were generally still relying on atmospheric engines, with low torque and high fuel consumption.

Comparing the european staple for regular cars, in 1999 the average VW Golf TDI had 110 PS/235Nm and made 4.9l/100kms, while its gas brother (1.6) had 101 PS/145Nm and averaged 7.5l/100kms!

So, more power, (much) more torque and saving 2.6 liters per 100 kilometers, there wasn't much discussion on which fuel people should choose, resulting in historic diesel sales throughout the European continent, with consumers growing accustomed to them.

But then the XXI century came and with it, a more environmental awareness across the globe, leading manufacturers to finally start to developing gasoline engines (The leading fuel outside Europe), including equipping them with turbos and direct injection, which lead gas engines to outpace the performance improvements that their diesel counterparts did during the same timeline.

Let's look back at the same average Golf, now in 2015: The 1.6TDI has 110 PS/250 Nm and averages 3.4l/100kms, while its gas competitor 1.0TSI has 115 PS/200 Nm and averages...4.3 liters.

In 16 years, if the diesel version stagnated performance-wise, at least saved 1.5l in fuel consumption, all while the gas version improved its record performance-wise AND at the same time decreased fuel consumption by 3.2 liters! 

So, both are at the same level of performance, while the diesel saves 0.9 liters in every 100 kilometers, but it is also more expensive. Mmmm...Not so easy now, eh?

The Good Ol' Days...

Thanks for the History lesson, but what does it have to do with plug-in vehicles and the current VW emissions case?

This introduction was needed to realize why was Volkswagen so desperate to promote "Clean Diesel" to US consumers that they deliberately tried to cheat regulators and consumers alike, during several years Volkswagen, and european carmakers in general, relied on diesel engines to power their vehicles, disregarding gas engines and leaving alternative technologies, like hybrids and electrics, in the back seat.

But a few years ago, in the US and elsewhere, hybrids became mainstream and plug-in cars were turning out to be the Next Cool Thing, and VW was behind Toyota, Tesla, Nissan and others alike, while even in Europe gas engines were starting to recover ground, with Toyota hybrids leading the way.

VW had to react, but their technology on altenative fuels was years behind, so as an instant band aid to stop the sales bleeding, the german automakers came up with "Clean Diesel" and marketed it as another alternative fuel source, like hybrids or plug-in cars. 

Only, they weren't and we are now at this turning point.

Is this the time you start talking about the impact this has on EV's?

Yes, it is.

Besides the instant impact this has on the Volkswagen Group sales, and the incoming nightmare of lawsuits, fines, buybacks, etc, the lasting results of this will be that we might be witnessing the beggining of the end of the diesel engine era, a sort of meteor that has hit the earth and will lead to their extinction in a few years.

Looking a few years ahead, after Volkswagen (And possibly others) had paid millions to recover from their misdemeanors, diesel engines will have been so discredited that most consumers will prefer other fuel sources for their vehicles (Like electric...) and legislators will want them to be banned from larger urban areas so, especially in Europe, this year might signal the beggining of a escalation for a shift into cleaner fuel sources.

But back to VW, in the middle of all the doom and gloom, this situation has a hidden opportunity for Volkswagen Group, despite being outrageously high priced, their plug-in car sales place VAG as the #2 Automotive Group in the World this year! That's right, Renault-Nissan is #1, with some 50k units, followed by VAG with 32k and BYD, with 31k.

Now, imagine if VW actually tried to sell their plug-ins and on top of that, if it lowered prices to a reasonable level...

What about Tesla? *

I think this will a blessing and a curse at the same time, for the Palo Alto manufacturer:

On the positive side, there will be more buyers willing to trade their diesel-burning powerful-long-journey-bruisers for a clean variety of them, like, say...A Tesla Model S / X, so good news here.

But on the longer term, as more and more buyers turn into Tesla (Especially), (Lexus) hybrids, the several PHEV's arriving soon, or even Fuel Cells, the R&D of established luxury makers will have their eyes definetely set on Tesla and the recent Tesla-Killer concepts from Porsche, Audi, Mercedes, etc will become their #1 priority, enabling them to arrive at showrooms sooner than later, stealing time for Tesla to grow and face them head on, remember, Tesla currently sells 50.000 units against million-plus from each of the Three Marys (Audi, BMW and Mercedes), it's like comparing a baby croc to three adult specimens...

So, to summarize it, regarding EV's, this can only be a good thing, regarding Tesla, in the short term it is a blessing, but could become a curse in the long run.

* - Final question of most of our readers regarding this matter


  1. Replies
    1. "Pferdestärke " - german for metric horsepower

    2. Thank you. Thank god those horrendous non-SI measurements are obsolete now and the only thing you need to know is kW.

  2. You forget that Elon Musk is happy with the fact that other car maker is building BEV because that was his goal with Tesla, to take the car industry away from oil and that can he never do alone.

  3. I'm sad about the bad decissions VW made, because not it will take a long way until you can buy a diesel-Rex PHEV with around Volt/i3 electric range.

    That would be such a nice car. A perfect tuned diesel engine for permanent 40-50 PS if needed and otherwise off, togehter with fine battery management. This should lead to a consumption of 3l/100km of diesel when driving long range. And enabling to drive endless with just 40l tank, but electric locally.

    A car good for 90% of your driving + 10% of a the other ways you need a car for.

    1. They could still do it, just use the 1.0TSI...