Diesel Cars Are Being Banned From Major Cities, the Newest Gas-Powered Cars Might Be Next

If particulates are the problem for diesel, then direct injection might be next.

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Did you read Animal Farm as a kid? Remember Snowball, the pig who helped win the revolution but was later on driven away from the farm because his vision of the future didn’t line up with the ideas held by the violent and secretive Napoleon? Did you know that Snowball was meant to represent Leon Trotsky, who led the Red Army to victory in the Russian Revolution but was exiled from the USSR by the violent and secretive Stalin? Well, now you know.

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Trotsky was retroactively wiped from Soviet history at Stalin’s order, to the point that he was by Soviet artists. Yet his writing and work survived the Communist era to resonate once again with a new generation of socialist thinkers worldwide. Many of them can readily recite his most famous quote: “You might not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.”

Trotsky was pointing out that being apolitical does not enable you to avoid the consequences of political change. That quote was on my mind when I read that Germany’s “court of last resort,” the federal administrative court, will decide on Thursday whether or not individual cities can ban diesel cars. If the court gives the okay, as many as ninety German cities might Paris, Madrid, Mexico City, and other major urban centers in banning diesel cars as soon as practically possible.

Volkswagen
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Two and a half years ago, I shared my own unpleasant European diesel experience with you. I pointed out that passenger-car diesels (as opposed to commercial and trucking diesels) had only become popular in Europe because of laws and taxation policies that made them all but mandatory for company-car drivers and even private owners. Those policies led to unprecedented levels of smog and a genuine health crisis that is now believed to have resulted in across Europe.

Naturally, our Continental brothers and sisters are now applying that same unthinking legislative urgency to eliminating diesel cars, which makes me think of another famous quote: “Stupidity got us into this mess, why can’t it get us out?” Imagine being a European citizen who bought a diesel car because you had no other choice, only to find out that you now have no choice but to get rid of it. It’s at times like these that I am glad to live in rural Ohio.

Eliminating diesel will go a long way towards reducing the blanket of smog that has occasionally descended over Paris, and it will help people who live near crowded roads and who are therefore receiving the lion’s share of nitrogen oxides. But it might not have all of the health benefits that the commissars are expecting, because today’s gasoline engines have recently developed a bit of a nasty emissions habit that matches, or even exceeds, what the diesels are doing.

Getty ImagesDamien Meyer
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Diesel particulate matter, microscopic bits of carbon caused by incomplete combustion of atomized fuel, is thought to cause a variety of health issues. The State Of California, which is often thought to cry wolf about emissions and health, was probably right when they on this. According to the California Air Resources Board, diesel particulates increase the cancer risk to 520 per million people exposed. It’s scary and it tends to disproportionately strike people who have limited economic and social opportunities because those people are often forced to live in areas where there is heavy diesel traffic.

For that reason and a few others, diesel has always been a tough sell in California. Our federal agencies, as well, have tended to be a little tougher on the subject than their European counterparts. And, of course, we have no taxation policies that force drivers into diesel cars. So the majority of our efficiency-minded fellow drivers tend to wind up driving something like a Prius instead.

So far, so good, right? The problem is that the new generation of gasoline direct injection engines (GDI for short) are also notorious for creating particulate matter. A recent study that GDI engines can emit between five and ten times the amount of “PM” created by a traditional port fuel injection engine. So with respect to these particulates, which can be the size of a single molecule or even a virus, we are right back at square one.

The European Union wants automakers to fit , which should do what the expensive and troublesome diesel particulate filters do in commercial trucks. The good news is that the cost should be much less: compared to $5,000 or more for tractor-trailer diesel filters. But there are still questions regarding the effectiveness, service interval, and true cost of the proposed equipment. There’s also the matter of fuel blending, which might need an expensive and far-reaching change in order to work properly with the filters.

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Another alternative would be to simply ban the use of direct injection. The problem is that CO2 emissions and fuel consumption are significantly lowered in cars equipped with DI, so the legislators would be forced to make a public choice between the health of the planet and the health of its inhabitants. The last time they had to make that choice, during their love affair with diesel, the Europeans chose the planet without hesitation despite the fact that California was already sounding the alarm on particulates. This time, the decision might not be so clear-cut. There’s a lot of media attention on this and a lot of people with lung problems.

So why should we care about how the Europeans handle their emissions regulations? There are a few reasons. To begin with, California will almost certainly start looking closely at the health impact of gasoline direct injection. Where California goes, the eleven other states (and the District of Columbia) that have adopted some Golden State standards will almost certainly follow, with the EPA trailing at a respectable distance. It seems likely that we will have some legislative attention given to this issue in the near future.

Bozi Tatarevic
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Should you worry about buying a GDI-equipped car? Probably not. America is not Europe, and we don’t favor confiscation or restriction of private automobiles. You can expect some posturing from mayors in New York and Los Angeles, but it’s unlikely to result in immediate policy change. Given a chance, we like to implement standards gradually and let the old cars just vanish from the roads over time. Any elected official who seriously proposed the crushing of direct-injected cars would probably be “primaried” very shortly afterwards, even in California or New York.

With that said, we will be keeping a close eye on the evolving state of particulate-related regulation and legislation over the next few years. There’s actually a bit of a silver lining in it for enthusiasts; I’ve been told now by several engineers at major automakers and well-respected aftermarket tuning firms that direct injection can be a real nightmare when it comes to making big power in forced-induction engines. I’ve even heard of plans to retrofit a very popular GDI sports car with a port-injection system so it can be turbo-pressurized into dyno-destroying power. The return of port injection might cost your minivan a few horses, but you could get them back in your chip-tuned GT car.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that widespread implementation of gasoline particulate filters will raise the cost, lower the performance, and increase the ownership hassle for any next-generation cars that have the technology. We might not see the need for it, but there is a lot of science behind the idea. Nor should you ever bet against the desire of regulators and other government officials to clip the wings of the private automobile a bit. As Snowball might say: you might not be interested in the people who hate cars, but the people who hate cars are interested in you.

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