In a decade that has seen so many innovations in automotive fuel technology, not one fuel source has had a more tumultuous ride than diesel. It has gone from a nearly extinct fuel of the past to the hope for a more environmentally-friendly automotive future. Then it was recast as a hazard that should be retired. Now, very few know exactly what the future holds for diesel fuel or the industries that surround its use.
As electric and autonomous vehicles become standard, is diesel doomed? Fifty years from now, will coal-rolling 4x4s look the way steam locomotives do to us today? Or will there always be a place for them? Especially in a culture like America, where many still see it as a dependable, homegrown fuel that powers work fleets and motorsports alike. Are recent European trends away from diesel a sign of things to come in the stateside market, where enthusiasts still want more diesel options? Only time will tell. But industry insiders have hope. And we think a closer look at how we got here could give us a better idea of where we’re headed.
A Working Solution
Two decades ago, diesel was on pace to become the fuel of the future. It was positioned as a legitimate rival to the gasoline-powered combustible engine. It was always a force in trucking and construction industries. But diesel’s reputation as a cleaner-burning fossil fuel, with more efficient miles-per-gallon statistics, allowed it to begin growing in the world of passenger vehicles at a time when “green” technologies were becoming more desirable.
With climate change at the forefront of the global conversation, lawmakers, particularly in Europe, began to incentivize the production of diesel-engine cars based on the long term environmental benefits over gasoline. And it worked. Soon, half the cars sold on the continent were diesel fueled. Things were looking like the internal combustion engine would soon go the way of the dodo bird.
A Viable Option, No Longer?
But an unforeseen backlash was on the horizon. Diesel is more efficient and cost effective than gasoline in the long run. But its local effects on the atmosphere are well known. Diesel is a less refined fuel, and the particulate matter it releases into the air (smog, essentially) is more severe. Cities with high numbers of diesel engines began reporting record-high smog levels. Soon the public persona of the fuel that was once championed as earth-friendly began to do an about-face. Legislators who only recently were pushing diesel as the fuel of the future now restricted its use in major cities. They implemented drive bans and taxed its usage.
Recently, the mayor of Paris vowed to rid her city of diesel engines by the end of the decade. Pair this with the massive Volkswagen cheating scandal (in which VW was caught flagrantly cheating, hiding its high real-world diesel emissions numbers by fooling lab tests, and suggesting that most major automakers were up to similar tricks), and diesel has really begun to develop a problematic reputation. But above all else, perhaps nothing has done more to place the future of diesel in jeopardy than the world’s growing embrace of the electric car. It is an area where manufacturers continue to invest the most money and research. They’re folding their diesel bets from just a decade ago and doubling down on better batteries and hybrid technology.
Replaced with What?
The gasoline-crazed US market has never had the same relationship with diesel as Europe. But diesel fuel is still a major industry for enthusiasts, work fleets, and aftermarket manufacturers. In fact, companies like BD Diesel have built their businesses on its widespread success. If diesel disappears with the rise of electric vehicles, what will become of those factions who still rely on it so heavily?
Jason Sakurai, Director of Marketing at Hypertech, sees it as a situation of automotive Darwinism. While he acknowledges hope for the future, the industry is going to have to adapt to the changes that lie ahead, or else risk its own demise. Hypertech is one of many aftermarket companies participating in SEMA’s Emerging Trends and Technologies Network, whose mission is to “Identify, communicate, and provide automotive aftermarket engineers, programmers and product developers with the knowledge of emerging vehicle trends and new technology to ensure continued success.”
In short, the goal of this SEMA initiative is to unify an industry that could otherwise fracture under the pressure of newly emerging technologies. By banding together, staying informed, and working with original manufacturers to further their reciprocal relationship, industry insiders like Sakurai believe that the aftermarket can continue to hold its valuable place in the automotive landscape. As long as they continue to know what they are dealing with as technology changes.
“Whether we share technology or make our products compatible with each other,” says Sakurai, “it could go a long way towards modifying [electric and autonomous] vehicles to be more enthusiast friendly.”
But There’s Still Hope for Diesel…
Trends shift like the wind in the automotive world. Diesel’s ever-changing public persona over the last twenty years is just the latest example. Our bet is that diesel will never fully go away. And if it does, it won’t be anytime soon. A massive American aftermarket, where names like Cummins and International reign supreme, is proof of that. And automakers aren’t going to quit production and close up shop stateside in the near future.
While they are not the industry standard, plenty of diesels are still rolling off of assembly lines. And some are in places where they never were before. In fact, Fiat Chrysler is releasing the first diesel-powered version of the almighty Jeep® Wrangler within the next year. And the seven-slot nation is frothing with anticipation.
Diesel powers American workforces, and has for generations. Their presence as the backbone of American labor is not up for debate, and experts do not believe that any new fuel source is ready to compete in that realm anytime soon. As for passenger vehicles, diesel has never been a market force at home the way it is in Europe. If their growth were to stagnate, it wouldn’t signal an industry collapse. Initiatives like SEMA’s ETTN hope to keep the aftermarket industry as one. This way when sweeping changes approach the market, they can be met head on.