Will clean diesels survive the VW scandal?

Several years ago, I blogged about so-called “clean” diesels. I concluded that they were cleaner than previous diesels, but even so emitted too many fine particles. Though HVO seems fairly safe, other bio-based diesel fuel often emits too much nitric oxide. In short, the simple and reliable diesel engine has to be made much more complicated to meet emission standards.

As an alternative to building gasoline-electric hybrids, German automakers like Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, Audi and Volkswagen embraced that complexity, and some of their diesel models even won green vehicle awards. In addition to German diesels, American drivers can usually buy diesel versions of full size pickup trucks, Chevrolet and Jeep offer diesel passenger vehicles, and Mazda was thinking about bringing their SkyActiv diesels to the US.

But it has now been revealed that Volkswagen installed what is called a defeat device in their software that would make their diesel engines run cleaner during an emissions test, but then allow them to run dirtier and cheaper at all other times. In what has to be a criminal conspiracy, VW group is now exposed to tens of billions of dollars of penalties and their stock has plummeted. Current owners of VW and some Audi TDI diesels back to 2009 are facing recalls and sales of 2015 and 2016 models are on hold. Other manufacturers will face increased scrutiny.

Even though I have come to see the widespread use of automobiles as an environmental hazard, I’ve generally been a fan of German car design, so this rankles me more than the GM or Toyota design failures.

Now stepping back, can we believe that burning fossil fuels in cars or smokestacks can really be made clean?

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