The Rise And Fall Of Diesel

Diesel fuel has become a target for environmentalists, politicians and even some leading car manufacturers. However, this much-misunderstood fuel has played a vital role in the world economy and automotive industries for decades. Here’s a rundown on diesel, its history and what its declining popularity could mean for the country moving forward. 

Rudolf Diesel

Rudolf Diesel, inventor of the diesel engine

The name ‘Diesel’ comes from the German mechanical engineer Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine. Diesel was a well-respected and precocious engineer who graduated from some of Europe’s most prestigious polytechnics. Being born in the 19th century, Diesel hailed from a time in which steam power was dominant. However, understanding thermodynamics, he recognised that as much as 90% of fuel efficiency was being lost in steam engines. He was therefore driven by a desire to realise increasingly higher efficiency ratios as a part of his ambitious engine designs. The result of his efforts was the diesel engine, singular in that it relies on compression of air in order to ignite fuel; this is in contrast with petrol engines, which require a spark in order to ignite. Ultimately, this process made the diesel engine the single most efficient form of combustion engine, offering high thermal efficiency ratios.

Unfortunately, despite his genius, Diesel met an end that was both tragic and mysterious. In 1913 he boarded a boat in order to meet representatives of the Royal Navy. The meetings would have concerned powering British submarines via diesel engines. Diesel never reached Britain, having disappeared from the ship in the night. A body bearing his belongings was found, but had to be abandoned due to poor weather. In his diary, the day of his death was marked by a simple cross. Some speculate that he had committed suicide, others have considered the possibility that he was murdered in order to prevent him liaising with the Royal Navy. Whatever the case, his creation may very well face an equally tragic and unusual end as himself.


Volkswagon was at the heart of the Dieselgate controversy

After its creator’s death, the diesel engine became increasingly popular in automotives, locomotives and eventually aviation. Its increased performance and fuel economy made it popular throughout the developed world and beyond. However, since September 2015, following the ‘Dieselgate’ controversy, diesel fuel has received immense and often hysterical condemnation from a variety of sources. Volkswagon was found to have intentionally programmed diesel engines in its cars to activate emission controls only in laboratory and testing environments. In real world driving, they emitted up to 40 times more NOx. Over eleven million cars were affected. The result immediately increased the profile of diesel engines, the level of pollution they caused and possible alternative powertrains.

The British government, as a part of its ‘Road to Zero’ campaign, wants to phase out sales of new petrol and diesel cars completely by 2040; anticipating a transition towards electric vehicles (EVs). However, diesel has played a vital role in the nation’s economy (as it has for many other countries) and will continue to do so for some time. There are also major concerns about insufficient charging and power infrastructure in bringing about an EV revolution. As it stands, less than 1% of cars on British roads are EVs. Industry analysts expect the nation will need around 3 million charging points, whilst there are currently less than 20,000 and not all of these are fast-charging. Despite this, pressure groups have asked the government to bring to date of phasing diesel out back to 2032.

The Facts 

Diesel still has a place within the automotive industry

In the UK, 96% of all commercial vehicles use diesel as a powertrain; collectively, they cover 61 billion miles each year. As hard as it may be to believe, diesel has also been critical in reducing CO2 emissions. They typically release 20% less than petrol equivalents and have prevented 3.5 million tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. Additionally, advanced technology has eliminated 99% of all particulate matter from being released into the atmosphere; half of all diesels on the road are now fitted with this technology. So clean will be modern diesels that they’ll be able to enter London’s new Ultra Low Emission Zones, free of charge and with the introduction of new emissions tests, WLTP, diesel engines will have to conform to the toughest regulations and highest-standards yet.

Despite these changes, the witch-hunt on diesel continues at full pace. Some industry analysts are concerned that prematurely turning on diesel will actually get in the way of developing replacements; as car manufacturers will lose revenue that would otherwise have been, at least in part, spent on developing cleaner alternatives. In addition, the cleanest diesels are now either equal to, or cleaner than, many petrol cars. In Germany, total bans on diesel are being introduced in Stuttgart and Dusseldorf, others are expected to follow. Car manufacturers like Volvo will no longer make diesel cars as a result of state-sponsored, anti-diesel legislation and Volkswagon has unveiled a new, all-electric model range.

Whilst the transition to ‘green’ types of fuel may be inevitable, and necessary, it seems that the rich history of diesel is being overlooked and, more importantly, its continued contributions to broader society. It’s one thing to plan appropriately for its eventual demise, another thing entirely to phase it out before a real and economically viable alternative has been produced.

Whether you drive a diesel or wouldn’t touch one with a barge pole, your car will require regular service and maintenance. With over 16,000 approved garages, a 24/7 support service and a host of cost-saving offers, Autoserve can keep your car moving smoothly. Call one of our professional Service Advisers on 0121 521 3500 for more details.

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