“I'm sure the levels of particulate matter and nitrogen oxide as well would be much, much lower in European cities if they didn't have the incentives they had for diesel cars,” said Helotonio Carvalho, a molecular biologist at Brazil’s Federal University of Pernambuco, Recife. He added, “We are going in a direction where diesel cars probably won't have a place.” Carvalho has written in the medical journal The Lancet that 400,000 people died prematurely from all the various sources of air pollution in Europe in 2011. I asked him how many deaths can be attributed specifically to Europe’s elevated rate of diesels, relative to, for example, North America or to his native Brazil, where diesel passenger cars haven’t been allowed as a matter of policy. He told me that the number is in the “hundreds of thousands.”
Policy makers in Europe seem to be adjusting to the reality. Sir David King, the chief science adviser to the U.K. government and the public face of its “Dash for Diesel” policy, who once famously caused a controversy by declaring carbon dioxide more threatening than terrorism, said in April that “it turns out we were wrong” to think automakers would make diesels that emitted within regulatory limits. Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls used similar language. And Elzbieta Bienkowska, an EU commissioner who oversees the auto industry, made a bold prediction in some recent comments to policy makers: "Diesel will not disappear from one day to another. But after this year of work ... I am quite sure they will disappear much faster than we can imagine.”
The economic effects of that will ripple. For one thing, there are lag times that come with ratcheting up the production of regular gasoline, so while the energy industry adapts its supply to the change, increased European demand for gasoline will push up prices in the U.S. and elsewhere. Then there’s the car industry, in which, Lipman told me, the companies that have focused on batteries and hybrid technology are now positioned better than the European companies that made big bets on diesel, partly as a response to pro-diesel policies.
Finally, there is the most urgent issue with the “Dieselgate” scandal, that of the millions of Volkswagen and other diesels still on the road, emitting far outside of acceptable limits. For the good of the environment and public health, they cannot be left noncompliant. But the reason companies like Volkswagen would want to cheat in the first place is because few would want to own and drive a diesel car that met regulations, and performed like it. Will they now just be left to rot in automotive graveyards? Or will they be made compliant but unloveable?
These are the kinds of questions that thinking about the future of diesel raises. They’re grim, for car lovers, for car companies, and for people whose health is on the line. In a quite real sense they are just a different version of the same dilemma engineers and managers at Volkswagen must have faced, and crucially bungled at the expense of other people’s lives, when public-health regulations and the limits of the engines’ chemistry came into conflict. It does nothing to excuse these companies to observe that the pressures they felt to cheat on behalf of diesel existed for the very same reasons that made engineers start using the dirty, dense stuff in the first place: Diesel engines’ pep, efficiency, and cheapness to run offered a solution to the challenge of making cars that met customers’ expectations about performance as regulators who were focused on global climate change pushed for tighter fuel efficiency standards—without anticipating the fateful tradeoffs in toxic air pollution. And so the story of diesel seems to have turned out to be a tragedy, because its good qualities are inexorably linked to its bad ones. And as with any good tragedy, everything seems to be building towards the death of the main character. In the modern world, diesel just doesn’t fit.