Where Diesel Makes Sense

A lot of baguettes were dropped in France a couple of weeks ago when the state decided that diesel, previously the apple in the eye for France, would now be an outlaw because it’s harmful for the environment. In America, diesel is a niche market at best and you have to drive a lot of miles to justify the increased cost of the car and the fuel. Really it seems diesel is something that is tolerated rather than actually wanted, despite the number of Audi, Volkswagen, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz offerings in the market. That’s at least if you only look at those markets.

In early December, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, decided to shock the world and make members of the granola constituency happy by calling for a ban of diesel from the city by 2020. I’m guessing she’ll leave those pesky details of how to manage all the delivery vans, state cars, or indeed how she’ll get to the center herself. That’d be a nice headline “Mayor of Paris takes the train to work”.
Puzzlingly, instead of having a revolution everyone just shrugged and went about their business as if nothing had happened. Maybe they know that Ms. Hidalgo’s plans are about as likely to become true by 2020 as world peace. Interestingly, Boris Johnson, mayor of London and Top Gear target extraordinaire decided that it was a great idea and proceeded to look into the feasibility of a similar scheme for his people.
America is going the other way and at a considerably slower pace. The heyday of diesel was fueled along by clattery Mercedes oil burners in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Then it was brought to a screeching halt by things like the hastily converted Oldsmobile 350. Diesel is picking up momentum at snail’s pace.
Offerings such as the VW Jetta TDI and the Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel, not to mention better placement for diesel at the pumps, are working at making the people trust in the fuel again. The current downward trend for fuel prices may put a dent to the progress as people move away from fuel economy and into bigger and thirstier cars, at least for a little while. It’s unknown if they’ll grow to regret their new vehicle choices when the powers that be make fuel prices increase once again.
Latin America seems to have found a happy middle ground between the Europeans new love-to-hate relationship and America’s diesel tax. In most countries south of the border, diesel makes perfect sense. Unlike in America where people up high noticed that diesel was a necessity you couldn’t get rid of and increased taxes accordingly, diesel is actually quite approachable here. Of all the fuels it’s the cheapest, going at around $3.37/gallon on my neck of the woods (People buying fuel at $1.99, count your blessings) and because there’s a very big sample of diesels, which mostly get promptly ignored in favor of bikes and pickup trucks, you can have all the benefits of diesel without having to pay through the nose.
On our favor are extremely lax emission regulations for automobiles, which I suspect is because the governments in Latin America are a tad tied up with other matters like getting their countries to work. That also means there are no government subsidies to buy hybrid/electric cars, so they’re extremely expensive. You won’t see anyone driving a Prius unless they’re:

  1. Completely sold on the green movement and haven’t heard of things such as the BMW i3
  2. Are on the board of at least one company.

Finally, because diesel is a necessity for heavy machinery it’s actually priced to be cheaper so that more people have access to it.  Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I think big government may actually have a bigger part of the blame for the decline of diesel in America than underpowered smoke machines from 30 years ago. It doesn’t make much sense to buy a car to save fuel if you have to drive more than 90,000 miles a year to start seeing some savings.
The only country where diesel doesn’t make sense is in Venezuela, and that’s because it’s an oil producing country run by people who are utterly insane and have priced fuel at $0.05/gallon. Cue lots of fuel trafficking and the country losing money hand over fist on subsidies, which they invariably blame on the U.S waging an “unfair battle” against plucky little Venezuela. Odd when you think most of their fuel is exported to the U.S. Let’s be honest here, all of us would be driving uber-engined cars if fuel were that cheap.
I now ask you, best and brightest, what will be the feature of diesel? Will it remain like it is now with the new pressure from lawmakers in Europe? Will it get a better foothold on the U.S?

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  1. Batshitbox Avatar

    So many factors to consider! Diesel is, from what I know about refining fuels, less expensive to manufacture as it occurs earlier on the spectrum between crude oil and high octane race gas. With less refining, I'd think there was less polluting at the get-go. The end users (cars, trucks, trains, generators) have classically been seen as dirtier than gasoline burners, but I think the personal car market could be forced to clean up it's emissions.
    Expensive personal auto diesels that put out fewer pollutants, coupled with a more reasonable (lower) price for the fuel might add up to a net savings for the environment. Pay at the dealership, save at the pump. Certainly, as you point out is the case in Venezuela, people are going to go for the cheaper, more volatile, and messy to produce gasoline as long as the price at the pump (and dealership) is lower.
    We produce "Summertime Gas" here that is less volatile and hence less polluting in manufacture and transport. Diesel really doesn't have an evaporation problem like gasoline. Again, a supply chain nightmare with the gasoline.
    According to TheWiki, 'In the United States, for various complex economic and political reasons, the construction of new refineries came to a virtual stop in about the 1980s." ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petroleum_refining_p… ), which I would think would be a lesson we learned with the steel industry last century. Modernize or perish.
    I think all end users should pay the same price for diesel. Giving a fuel cost break to overland transport diminishes the drive towards more fuel efficiency. An assessment of who uses the most diesel would tell you where you need to regulate emissions to help the environment.

    1. peugeotdude505 Avatar

      What is this sorcery?

      1. sporty88au Avatar

        Looks like it started out as an Australian Ford Fairlane or LTD from the early to mid 1980's – they were a common starting point for hearse and limo conversions down here when new. Back then (and even now) there were a few specialist coachbuilders around the country who specialized in these.

        1. Alff Avatar

          Yes, that's what it is. Totally irrelevant to the post at hand but it really caught my eye on Aussie ebay. I've never really appreciated hearses for private use, but this is an exception. I'd love to convert it to a floral delivery vehicle for my wife's business, with a walking floor.

  2. Maymar Avatar

    My inlaws have a late-model Hyundai Elantra (his) and a V6 Kia Rondo (hers). If you asked them both, they'd swear the Kia is faster (realistically, the two cars would be pretty close to a dead heat in a straight line, I believe), and they'd both really rather have something V6-powered. Considering that's not likely to be an affordable option, they might be well-suited by a diesel engine when it comes time to replace the Rondo,

  3. Ol Shel Avatar
    Ol Shel

    The Federal diesel tax is 6 cents higher than gasoline.
    That doesn't explain why diesel is 83 cents more than the average gas price (that's all grades, averaged. It's 91 cents more expensive than regular.) Source: http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/pet_pri_gnd_dcus_nus_
    It's almost as if the producers priced diesel to deliver about the same benefit per dollar as gasoline…
    The substantially-higher cost of diesel vehicles, plus the high cost of the fuel is makes then a tougher choice.

    1. ptschett Avatar

      There are a few things going on here.
      -Diesel and home heating oil are practically the same thing. Home heating oil tends to be popular at this time of year for some reason.
      -US refinery capacity is geared toward producing more gasoline than diesel.
      -As the economy slowly continues to stagger out of the recession, demand for diesel increases with higher freight traffic.

      1. dukeisduke Avatar

        Plus it's Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel (15ppm), which is not cheap to refine.

  4. Roader Avatar

    I haven't been to Paris but London and Honk Kong positively reek with diesel fumes. Both have a majority of diesel vehicles and both are much worse than NYC or Chicago, which have a lot more gasoline vehicles. On the other end of the scale is Toyko which I believe bans diesel vehicle in any form and is truly a delight to walk around in, respiration-wise.

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      As a kid, New York movies were an entire genre to me. It blew my mind how such a dense city could be serviced by lots and lots of grossly overpowered V8 cabs. Then again, I grew up in cities that were blue of two stroke smoke, so what did I know…

  5. PotbellyJoe ★★★★★ Avatar
    PotbellyJoe ★★★★★

    The future of diesel is really in the compression-engine model and bio-fuels. If we were honest with ourselves, aka we stopped holding the first and therefore overly important caucus in Iowa, ethanol would be history. The fact is we have an infrastructure in place to handle liquid fuel systems, not vapors and not electricity. So hydrogen and electric charging have a steeper barrier to entry. We can dispense diesel, so a biodiesel, say sunflower oil derived, or any of the myriad other dieseling fuels can be stored, dispensed with proper regulation and units that the consumer already understands and ultimately it behaves in ways that the consumer already expects.
    I'm not saying it's perfect. But the switchover would be much easier to temper for Joe Six-pack.

  6. Sjalabais Avatar

    As much as I hate to admit it, the diesel story in Europe illustrates why liberals (in the European sense) distrust the government picking champions. Diesel was taxed a little less than gas (commercial drivers even get to fuel almost tax-free, differently coloured diesel in Norway). With the lower production cost and easier transport mentioned above, it was cheaper at the pump, sometimes as much as 25% cheaper (a bit more expensive in winter because of fuel additives and refineries competing for heating oil, too). With significantly less fuel consumption, the break even point for choosing diesel was already at 12-15000km/year for most drivers.
    Thus, half of all cars in most of central and northern Europe – except Sweden – ended up as diesel engined.
    Enter inversion and small particle pollution. PSA managed to build particle filters relatively quickly, while Mercedes' self-burning particle filters have a nasty habbit of clothing the entire car in flames. City governments are loath to forbid diesel cars to enter city centers on particularly polluted days because of two decades of pro-diesel policies. Instead, cities like Bergen mandate driving prohibitions based on wether your registration ends on an even or uneven number. The best way to incite the population to hit a random civil servant when they see them…
    So my take on the future of diesel…I don't think it is going away anytime soon. All commercial vehicles in Europe run on diesel. It's a mature technology for consumers. There are millions of used diesel cars on the road. Their value might take a hit relative to their diesel counterparts, but we all know people will drive the sh*t out of them until they fall apart. Maybe not in Europe, bur the export business to less regulated environments in Russia and the Middle East is alive and well.

  7. mac Avatar

    For anyone interested in a comparison between petrol (gasoline) and diesel. http://www.diffen.com/difference/Diesel_vs_Petrol

  8. daveB Avatar

    Suprised no-one has mentioned the World Health Organisation (WHO??)
    "the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – part of the World Health Organisation – announced that it had reclassified diesel exhaust as a ‘definite carcinogen’ – putting it in its highest category (Category 1)."
    Category 1 ranks it with asbestos, mustard gas, plutonium, arsenic.
    Did you wonder why they are being banned from European inner cities??
    & why diesel vehicles have pollen filters?? Clue … it ain't for pollen.

  9. cap'n fast Avatar
    cap'n fast

    my diesel engine yields more torque than the gas engine of the same displacement it replaced. it gives 37% better fuel economy than the gas engine it replaced.. it has been far and away more reliable than the gas engine it replaced. the silly bastards that run this country set the rules up that we play by and i am just playing the game as well as anyone else is. changing the rules on me now would really suck. you should price JP-8 or JET-A costs. also just as close to diesel as home heating oil.
    the foulest exhaust pipe on the road belongs to a government entity because the government entity is exempted from the emission rules made for you and me. school buses are the worst for violating opacity levels. why should that be?