What happens when an opportunistic, sensationalist press release lands on the desk of an ABC programme unit noted for its reluctance to investigate, or even question, claims which parallel its commitment to causes? Answer: an erroneous and completely misleading interview on the RN Breakfast show, hosted by Fran “I’m an activist” Kelly (left).
Last month, an obscure investment fund, Loftus Peak issued a curious press release. “VW’s car ‘accident”: Don’t waste a crisis”, it yelled. The message was that its diesel scandal showed that VW would be better off putting its energy into electric vehicles. Like Tesla.
Moreover, “seasoned observers” were already saying that the VW scandal could kill off diesel altogether, it breathlessly confided. And it implied, without evidence, that a cartel mentality in the European car industry made it hard to believe rival manufacturers wouldn’t be tainted. Loftus Peak proves to be a fund manager focusing on what it calls “listed disruptive businesses”, citing Apple, Google, Alibaba. Arguing that self-managed super funds should diversify from the risk inherent in Australian banks, resource stocks and the Australian dollar, it offers global stocks as “important secular trends.” Its promotions do not mention the foreign-exchange hurdle.
The end of the diesel car, pumping all that nitrous oxide into urban air, was too much for RN Breakfast and Kelly to resist. So we heard Alex Pollack, founder and CEO of Loftus Peak, exposing his ignorance. He wrote off the diesel engine:
“What prospective car owner today would buy a diesel car tomorrow having just heard what they’ve heard about them? Nobody would. If you had a diesel car today advertised in the paper for $20,000, you see what offers you are going to get for it tomorrow – you’d be lucky to get half that.”
And then the plug that Kelly couldn’t resist:
“If diesel is turning into a problem, and because it’s dirty and the hoped-for emissions can’t be reached, then either we re-tool for better diesel or we use this moment as a re-set moment as to what the car has to be — and if that’s electric, so be it.”
None of which is true, relevant or responsible. Serious as its diesel debacle has been for VW, it does not signify the end of the engine, much less a similar impact on other car manufacturers. The fact is that VW came late to advanced diesel technology; unable to catch up with the developments of its European competitors, it resorted to cheating to fool the regulators and the market.
Nitrogen oxide (NOx) is only one of the pollutants that may be emitted from a vehicle’s exhaust, and diesel engines emit more than petrol engines. (Others are carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), unburned hydrocarbons (HC) and particulates). Since the European standards system began in 1992, regulators have enforced serious reductions in NOx from both diesel and petrol engines, as this table shows:
When Euro 6 was signed into law in September, 2014, car makers had twelve months to adapt engines to conform to the new standard, which came into force for new vehicles last month. This is where VW got into trouble: it did not have the technology to achieve the 80mg figure over the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) test on the laboratory dynamometer, a “rolling road”. So the software in the vehicles submitted for testing was modified, perhaps to run the engine lean (less fuel in the fuel/air mixture), increase the turbocharger pressure, or other temporary tricks.
These adjustments to the engine-management computers on the test vehicles almost certainly would sooner or later have damaged engines in the cars sent to showrooms for sale, so the cars were shipped and sold with engines running to the old and superseded Euro 5 standard for NOx, 2.25 times higher than permitted under the latest mandated standards. The problems with NOx emissions have emerged only as a result of the massive take-up of diesel-engined passenger vehicles, ironically encouraged in Europe to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to save the planet.
The simple fact is that other manufacturers of diesel engines did adapt and meet the Euro 6 standards. The PSA Group of Peugeot and Citroen has anticipated and met every Euro standard requirement for the last 15 years. Peugeot, the most experienced diesel designer in Europe, introduced its first diesel car in 1928. The latest model released in Australia, the Peugeot 308, meets the standard that the VW Golf cannot.
In 2000, Peugeot introduced a particulate filter system to eliminate diesel soot discharge — particles less than 2.5 microns in size — eleven years before the European standards required it. When the company saw the Euro 6 standard coming, it developed what it called Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) technology. SCR reduces temperatures in the exhaust system’s catalytic converter by injecting a urea additive, carried in a separate tank. This additive, commonly called AdBlue, is a solution of 32.5% high-purity urea and 67.5% de-ionised water. (Daimler calls it BlueTec in its Mercedes Benz cars). AdBlue enables PSA vehicles to eliminate 90% of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. They are converted into water (H2O) and nitrogen (N).
So what is the truth about diesel engines? First, their fuel consumption is 15% better than petrol engines. Second, they emit 25% less carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol engines. Third, while they emit slightly more nitrogen oxide (NOx) than petrol engines, the amount is one-tenth what it used to be. Fourth, European figures show that cars and vans are responsible for only 15% of all emissions; the greatest part is caused by transport vehicles. In Australia, where diesel vehicles make up a far smaller proportion of all vehicles on the road, it would be much less.
Senator Nick Xenophon, who never lets a bandwagon pass him by, joined the RN programme to beat the drum for tougher emission-test standards for Australia. “No doubt, the VW scandal will accelerate diesel’s demise”, he said. Off the top of his head, he added: “We will see fewer diesel motors because they just can’t get those emissions down, they can’t reduce those dangerous particulates down to acceptable levels, then it’s inevitable there will have to be fewer diesels rather than business as usual.”
Business, as usual, Senator, has come up with the innovative technology to enable the diesel engine to comply with the strictest world standards. Particulates don’t exit the exhaust pipe of the latest diesel car. So we can continue to enjoy its advantages of economy, high cruising speeds at low engine revolutions and enormous pulling power (torque). It’s just a pity that one company that couldn’t compete resorted to a fraud that gave Rudolf Diesel’s engine bad name.
Disclosure: Geoffrey Luck, a former ABC journalist, has driven Peugeot 405 and 407 turbodiesels since 1990 and knows their superiority.