Will the Federal Government Give Diesels a Fair Shake?

Diesel engines are slow, noisy and issue an amazing amount of pollution. Diesel engines are powerful, quiet and cleaner than many gasoline engines.

These two statements are both correct, but they speak of diesels of different eras. The former includes diesels sold throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The latter points to engines featuring “clean diesel technology,” what has been sold in the United States since 2009.

Diesel Transformation

The transformation of the mighty, but once lowly diesel engine hasn’t gone unnoticed, but very few diesel models are available in the U.S. Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and BMW have the diesel car market sewn up. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler have the diesel truck market all to themselves. However, fewer than 5 percent of all vehicles sold in America are powered by diesels while just over half of European models are.

Why the difference? Is there some sort of conspiracy at play?

Conspiracy no, but federal energy policy yes. Those policies include small matters such as a higher federal tax on diesel fuel – 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline; 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel – and a very large matter too: the government backing electric vehicle development at the expense of internal combustion engines.

Energy Coalition

Should EVs be backed by the federal government?

A coalition of diesel advocates believes that the federal government’s approach to the market is wrong. In a bid to raise corporate average fleet economy numbers to 54.5 mpg by 2025, the Obama administration has put its considerable weight behind the development of electric vehicles. The U.S. Coalition for Advanced Diesel Cars believes that this approach should be changed and is urging the government to take a neutral approach to vehicle technology.

The coalition, whose members include BorgWarner, the Bosch Group, Honeywell, Johnson Matthey, SinterCast and Umicore, has tapped former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to address its concerns. Mineta has written a white paper advocating for a technologically neutral approach for vehicle technology, and this writer participated in a conference call on Nov. 8 to listen to Mineta’s remarks and to ask questions.

Technology Neutral

Mineta and the coalition believe that technology neutral government policies have been successful historically as this position sparks innovation leading to better products down the line. The group believes that today’s highly efficient gasoline and diesel engines are nearly as efficient as anything else made today including electric vehicles. That takes into account the impact EVs have on the electric grid – while EVs don’t directly put out emissions, these vehicles tap coal-burning powerplants that do. Indeed, the coalition points to an April 2008 study by the MIT Electric Vehicle Team which shows that today’s diesel vehicles expend similar levels of emissions as EVs.

Given that America must reduce its dependency on foreign sources of oil and from countries that are often hostile to the United States, Mineta believes that the fastest and most cost efficient way to reach that goal is through a stepped up adoption of fuel efficient, but smaller gasoline and diesel engines. The industry is already working toward that goal as automakers such as Hyundai use gasoline direct injection engines while Volkswagen continues to respond to demand for its turbo-diesel engines.

Consumer Interest

Another factor the federal government must consider is what consumers want to buy. A strong resistance to electric vehicles remains as consumers are finding that prices are too high and range is too restricted. Even with a federal tax credit of $7,500 per vehicle, such models are out of the reach of most American drivers. The coalition believes that the federal government should allow the market to innovate, enabling automakers to develop more fuel efficient internal combustion engines that also emit lower levels of emissions.

This past July the Obama administration reached a deal with automakers that will nearly double fuel efficiency standards, setting in place increasingly higher benchmarks that must be achieved yearly from 2017 to 2025. The coalition will be filing comments in a bid to get the administration’s proposal modified before it takes effect.

Currently, the federal government is backing EVs, but Mineta believes that these vehicles are “the flavor of the day. It’s sort of the fad…” as reported by the Detroit News. The coalition believes that EV demand won’t be sufficient to help automakers achieve the EPA’s revised thresholds, but sees those goals being reached if the government allows automakers to innovate by producing more efficient diesel and gasoline engines. Those new engines, coupled with vehicle weight reduction methods, can help the industry provide the efficiencies needed at a cost far lower than the average $8,000 cost of EV batteries according to Mineta.


U.S. Coalition for Advanced Diesel Cars: The Case for Technology Neutral Public Policy in Fuel Economy Debate: Allowing Performance to Determine Solutions; Norman Y. Mineta; November 7, 2011

J.D. Power and Associates Reports: Future Global Market Demand for Hybrid and Battery Electric Vehicles May Be Over-Hyped; Wild Card is China; October 27, 2010

MIT: Wheel to Well Analysis of EVs; MIT Electric Vehicle Team, April 2008

The Detroit News: Former DOT Chief Urges U.S. to Treat Diesels Fairly; David Shepardson; November 7, 2011

See AlsoKPMG Survey: Automotive Executives and Electric Vehicles