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Don’t mention the D-word! Is diesel a victim of consumer confusion?

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The government has been admirable in backing electric vehicle technology and committing to reduce air pollution. It should be applauded for its ambitious plans to put the UK at the heart of alternative automotive propulsion and make us a leading light in the next generation of environmentally-friendly technology. But at the same time it has created consumer confusion and further fuelled the stigmatising of diesel vehicles, with significant consequences for sales.

The fall and fall of diesel

As a recruiter I have worked within the automotive industry for a long time, and although I take a keen interest in the sector, when it comes to leasing my car I’m a fairly typical consumer. I also like to think of myself as reasonably environmentally conscious, so when my car lease came up for renewal this year it felt a bit strange to be making an informed decision to choose a diesel car. This is at odds with prevailing attitudes towards diesel. A combination of the emissions scandal, a new levy on diesel vehicles and the fact that time has been called on combustion cars in general means diesel has a bad rap. 

Why did I (briefly) feel like I’d gone to the dark side when I renewed my lease, despite interrogating my new car’s emissions and finding them to be favourable? New diesel cars are low in emissions and pass stringent government testing standards. Overall CO2 emissions are lower in diesel than in petrol. SMMT Chief Executive Mike Hawes has pointed out that the new Euro 6 vehicles are the cleanest in history, with technology that converts NOx into nitrogen and water before it reaches the exhaust. Drivers of these vehicles will be able to enter London’s Ultra Low Emission zone without charge.

The answer is that, in its ambition to do right by the environment, the government has done little to change consumer perception of diesel-powered vehicles. And it needs to: it recently announced plans to ban sales of new diesel and petrol cars and vans by 2040. That gives us just over twenty years to develop an infrastructure to make EV purchases a realistic option for the average consumer. Meanwhile, the SMMT reports that sales of diesel cars plummeted by 37% in like for like sales for March 2017/18, with demand for diesel cars falling by 17% last year.

Consumers need informed choices

The message that is missing from the government’s communication is that plenty of new diesel technology is as environmentally sound as any new petrol-powered alternative – more so, even. That is why the SMMT and a number of manufacturers have taken it upon themselves to remind us. Electric vehicles present an exciting future but aren’t affordable or practical for most consumers yet, and, as suggested above, we still lack the infrastructure to make them a bona fide option for most people today.

Until Electric Vehicles become an everyday reality, people still need to buy new cars. And they’re stuck between misleading messages about pollution and being stung on car tax, whilst being unsure about whatever big trends or legislation will next impact the market.

Automotive manufacturers were already aware that the industry is in a state of huge flux, with new generations having very different ideas about car ownership and, of course, new technologies allowing for a very different vision of the future of auto. But now we have a kind of hiatus in new car ownership caused by consumer confusion, and while people wait to see what happens to the industry next. Given all of this, it seems reasonable to invest in a new, low-emission diesel car using a future-proof method such as leasing.

We need a proper roadmap for EV conversion

I’m not alone in my misgivings about the consumer confusion currently besetting the automotive market. Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer, an industry guru and a man who was instrumental in Nissan’s electric revolution, has been critical of the government’s lack of clarity around diesel and petrol.

Palmer highlights a widespread criticism of the ban – that it could place the UK at the mercy of less regulated and cheaper markets, forcing us to abandon hard-won combustion technology expertise in favour of countries (notably China) that are able to adopt cheaper EV technologies and mass produce them with lower environmental standards.

The stigma and the reality

But back to my car: I got a great deal on it because diesel is unpopular, but it’s now the word “diesel”, that is dirty rather than the cars themselves. To the casual observer, the idea of diesel feels a bit old school, doesn’t it? Much as the word “engineering” carries with it certain associations in the UK, the word “diesel” has rather industrial connotations – people think of diesel and images of smelly buses and belching smoke spring to mind. Meanwhile one of my colleagues here at G&H drives a Nissan Qashqai diesel, with minimal tax and emissions are among the lowest in the market.

I applaud the government for ploughing money into battery, EV and hybrid development, with news released only this week that Southampton will pilot a massive new vehicle charging network worth £1.6 billion. But the government’s messaging and roadmap for consumers needs some work if it to avoid further damaging the very market it seeks to champion.