The emissions efficacy of diesel technology maybe under a cloud following the Volkswagen dieselgate scandal of 2015 when they admitted to using defeat devices to fudge emission tests, but world's largest luxury car maker Mercedes Benz believes diesel is here to stay, at least in the near foreseeable future.
The dieselgate scandal had erupted in September 2015 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found Volkswagen had installed devices on its diesel turbocharged direct injection (TDI) engines that manipulated emissions during government tests. The total number of diesel vehicles with "defeat" devices sold between 2009 and 2015 was 500,000 in the U.S, and another 11 million worldwide. VW had to subsequently spend $29.7 billion to fix consumer-owned vehicles, plus pay a $2.8 billion fine to settle U.S. criminal charges.
At the same time, diesel-powered vehicles from a host of carmakers including Volvo, Renault, Mercedes, Jeep, Hyundai, Citroen, BMW, Mazda, Fiat, Ford, and Peugeot that had qualified under government testing for sale in Europe were all found to exceed the emission limits for nitrogen oxide (NOx) when tested on the road under normal driving conditions.
Incidentally, only last week Mercedes Benz also found itself under the scanner after a German newspaper reported it too had used software programs similar to the defeat devices of Volkswagen that temporarily lowered emissions during tests.
These controversies have put a question mark on the very survival of diesel as a technology at a time when more stringent emission norms are being contemplated and the world is moving towards electric vehicles. Recently, German sportscar maker Porsche, which is part of the VW group, discontinued all its diesel powertrains from its European line-up. Similarly, Mercedes no longer sells its diesel versions for its passenger cars in the US.
"The popularity of the diesel engine varies from region to region and from model to model. In India like in Europe, diesel engines have a high priority. They still will be important in the future, according to current assessments." said Matthias Luehrs, head of region overseas, Mercedes-Benz Cars. "When it comes to fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, diesel still has an advantage compared to petrol engine. We have a clear commitment to invest in the improvement of our internal combustion engines, diesel as well as petrol engines, because we believe that we will stay with this technology for some extended time in the future."
Luehrs's statement needs to be taken in isolation as it preceded the German newspaper report. Yet, it shows the three-pointed star remains firmly invested in diesel. The Group's research and development head Ola Kallenius had last month said the company has already developed a diesel engine that meets the new tough European emission norms.
The stigma surrounding diesel has affected India too. In late 2015, the apex court of the country banned registration of large diesel cars of engine capacity 2000cc and above for a period of 9 months to curb rising pollution in the Delhi-NCR. The ban had directly impacted companies like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Jaguar Land Rover and Audi.
"We have to adapt to the circumstances. We adapted to the diesel ban and we are now adapting to the new regulations," Luehrs said. "Obviously, this does not help the Indian market to grow at the pace of its potential. But we are flexible, we are open to adapt and we are confident to grow further."
With the inventor of the motorcar putting its weight behind, perhaps there is still some juice left in the diesel story.