Monday 16 July 2018

With new technologies biting into emissions, is diesel being buried alive?

Or are latest advances only tiny little blips on the road to Dead-End-Diesel?

Couple buying a car
Couple buying a car
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

I know I risk being castigated and accused of 'standing up' for diesel as well as head-butting reality at a time when so many believe it is dead or dying.

But I still think, in light of more positive recent developments, someone has to ask the question: Have we (Irish especially) jumped too soon in planning to banish sales of new diesel and petrol cars within a specific time-frame (2030)?

The sense of fatalism around diesel, and petrol to a lesser extent, has been compounded by the latest announcement - this time from Nissan - that it intends to phase out diesel in Europe.

It doesn't specify when, and has even given itself a little bit of an 'out' by saying: "At this point in time, and for many customers, modern diesel engines will remain in demand and continue to be available within Nissan's powertrain offering."

Which helps me to prompt a question: Have we utterly ruled out the possibility that hugely significant advances will be made over the coming years on diesel that may infuse life into it for much, much longer than currently envisaged?

Already this past week there has been strong evidence that harmful diesel emissions (NOx) can be reduced to ONE-TENTH of current levels.

Bosch have claimed the massive reductions thanks to new technology.

Critics say it is little more than a positive blip on the road to oblivion.

But what if that is only a start?

Give it a few more years and is it beyond the prospect of credibility that we could have overall emissions (C02/Nox) close to, or better than, those of a plug-in hybrid?

Without getting caught up in the optimism or into too much detail, Bosch say the new diesel-exhaust system cuts emissions to well below legal limits that are due to kick in from 2020.

They say it will help automakers avoid possible driving bans in cities especially.

The company's chief Volkmar Denner says the breakthrough could shift the debate over diesel into new territory and "hopefully, bring it to a close".

That is serious aspiration and one that will be watched with immense interest - and doubt as well, in many cases.

Let's not forget the German engineering giant is the biggest supplier of diesel-engine technology to global automakers.

Those same automakers relied on diesel to help meet C02 regulations but now face the guillotine on the nitrogen oxides (NOx) that contribute to health problems in urban areas.

According to Bosch, the new process optimises thermal management of exhaust temperatures that slashes NOx emissions to one-tenth of the legally permitted limit and doesn't require new hardware.

That's one-tenth of what they were - without having to add anything. The system will be for new diesel cars only and it can not be retrofitted.

I repeat: if that sort of dramatic improvement can be achieved at this stage what can we realistically expect in five years?

Allied to that, is the introduction, albeit on a limited enough scale so far, of petrol particulate filters (GPFs).

Volkswagen is the latest to do so as part of broader plans to improve emissions across its range.

But here's the rub. They forecast reductions of particulate emissions in some models by up to 95pc.

Okay, they would say that.

And yes, they have history.

And this has yet to be proved globally.

Yet can anyone deny that the acceleration of technology is knocking the socks off the perception-cum-philosophy that trying to slash NOx (from either petrol or diesel) is too daunting and costly?

It seems to me we've only just started on that front.

I could be entirely wrong and I know I'm leaving myself open to accusations of ignorance on many fronts of the debate.

But all I'm really doing is asking: have we thrown sink, baby and plumbing system out with the bathwater in pursuit of the 'electric-only' dream?

Maybe not.

Maybe this is as good as it gets for diesel and petrol. Maybe we have reached the end of the technology road with diesel in particular.

Electric technology is improving at real pace too; that has to be acknowledged. And there is no gainsaying the fact that the future - whatever it is and whenever it arrives - is going to be electric on a massive scale.

But I'm just wondering if our diesel-ban preoccupation fails to recognise the possibility, and ability, to clean up emissions to levels many would never have envisaged - and thereby extend their use well beyond self-imposed deadlines.

* Your views would be welcomed: ecunningham@independent.ie

Indo Motoring

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