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Diesel tries to make a comeback, with help from GM and other EV-makers

General Motors will soon start selling first-time diesel versions of the Chevy Tahoe and Suburban SUVs, and the Silverado pickup. GM is not alone in making a play for diesel, which is being propped up as an alternative to EVs. The Detroit News today makes the wild claim that diesel’s “resilience is creating doubts about the electric future touted by governments and manufacturers alike.”

Electrification is coming to the truck segment, but the first models won’t start rolling out in small waves until later this year. Meanwhile, the Diesel Technology Forum, an industry trade group, boasts that diesel-powered vehicles outsell electric cars by more than 2-to-1. The biggest diesel seller in the US is the Ford F-150.

The trend is getting worse. The current count of diesel-powered vehicles available, or coming soon, in the US is about 40 models. The list is mostly made up of pickups, but there are also passenger vehicles such as the Chevy Cruze, Jaguar XE, and Mazda 3. The list is growing.

GM President Mark Reuss

GM President Mark Reuss

GM President Mark Reuss last month said:

“Diesels don’t get enough ink these days. This is really in the wheelhouse of people who want it. They really don’t care about the car diesel (scandal) that went on.”

Detroit News looked at the last quarter that sales data was available and saw that full-size diesel pickups were up 23% between the first and second quarters of 2019.

Automakers and diesel-friendly media tout the benefits of diesel power: more power, range, and efficiency. They don’t mention carcinogenic diesel particulates being sprayed from the tailpipe. Diesel pollution also contributes to heart attacks and other diseases.

On the cost front, Detroit News says that diesel variants can carry a $5,000 premium. But then, the hometown paper for Detroit automakers quickly counters that EVs are even pricier. Detroit News offers a dubious comparison between a Chevy Bolt, for example, that costs $15,000 more than “similar gas-engine vehicles” like the Chevy Sonic hatchback.

Allen Schaeffer, director of the Diesel Technology Forum, was mostly quiet the past few years. But he’s getting ink again:

“Electrification may be the wave of the future. But so far, it’s not bearing out in the market. GM recognizes that you have to have vehicles that customers can buy.

“Customers have been asking for diesels in these vehicles for a long time. It will be interesting to see how much the sales numbers grow as new vehicles come online.”

Conventional industry analysts rally behind his claim. “There’s little natural demand for EVs because they’re not a better, more convenient solution to transportation than gas engines,” said Rebecca Lindland, who worked at KBB for years. She said, “Regulations are driving the move to EVs.”

The consensus from this crowd is that electric pickups cost more but don’t have the range or the towing capacity.

The first-ever F-150 Diesel was introduced in 2018

The first-ever F-150 Diesel was introduced in 2018

Meanwhile, diesel is making a slow retreat in Europe. German consumer groups are only now, in 2020, starting settlement talks about the diesel scandal

After years of decline, European diesel sales are expected to flatten out in 2020. But the diesel demand is shifting to inefficient SUVs, a double-whammy of pollution. Between 2015 and 2018, sales of diesel SUVs actually increased by about 19 percent. Popular models include (ahem) the Volkswagen Tiguan, as well as the Peugeot 3008.

In 2011, diesel represented 56 percent of European auto sales. This year, analyst firm LMC Automotive predicts it will drop to 32 percent this year ­– still about one in three transactions, with substantial representation in larger vehicles and luxury models.

Even pro-EV German automakers are still prominent purveyors of diesel vehicles in Europe. The Volkswagen Group, four years after its scandal, was the largest seller of diesel vehicles in 2019.

BMW, which was also implicated in the scandal, is still on board. BMW development boss Klaus Froelich said, “Our four- and six-cylinder diesels will remain for at least another 20 years.”

BMW is not selling diesels in the US. But Chevrolet, Dodge, GMC, Jaguar, Jeep, Land Rover, and Mazda continue to offer the fuel choice.

Electrek’s Take

Automakers offering diesel vehicles are hoping that the Dieselgate scandal has entirely disappeared down the memory hole. But with the rise of EVs, legions of zero-emission drivers ain’t falling for that.

The automotive world was transformed in the four years since the scandal. EVs, while still a relatively small percentage of sales, are on the rise. The technology is proven and there’s no turning back. We’re too smart to fall for oxymorons like “Clean Diesel.”

We understand the financial motivations of companies continuing to roll out diesels. But it’s surprising that the health lessons from Dieselgate haven’t been fully learned.

The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) ­– the folks who blew open the VW scandal ­– found last year that nearly 50% of transport pollution deaths each year are linked to diesel emissions. According to the ICCT, the United States saw 22,000 deaths from transport pollution, of which 43 percent were linked to diesels.

Which automotive brands want to be associated with that? What consumers want to put their families and neighbors at such a risk?

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Avatar for Bradley Berman Bradley Berman

Bradley writes about electric cars, autonomous vehicles, smart homes, and other tech that’s transforming society. He contributes to The New York Times, SAE International, Via magazine, Popular Mechanics, MIT Technology Review, and others.