1990s mercedes diesel
A Volkswagen dealership in Hamburg, Germany. A backlash against diesel began in 2015 when the German carmaker admitted to programming engine software to dupe regulators about emissions.
WOLFSBURG, Germany — The latest victims of noxious diesel fumes may be the fuel technology itself.
A consumer rebellion against diesel — once the fuel of choice in Europe — is gathering momentum after the region’s antitrust authorities said this week that they were looking into accusations that German carmakers secretly agreed to cut corners on pollution equipment.
A swell of forces that started with the Volkswagen emissions scandal is now engulfing the industry, putting the future of diesel in doubt and, with it, a technology crucial to European automaking. Public opinion is turning as consumers become aware of the health hazards. Sales of diesel vehicles are in free fall. Cities are contemplating outright bans. And government scrutiny is building, with elected officials realizing that diesel has become a political liability.
“The tide has been turning against diesel for some time, ” said Peter Wells, a professor at Cardiff Business School in Wales who follows the auto industry. “This will make matters even worse.”
For carmakers, diesel is not just another option that has gone out of style, like tape players or fog lights. Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and others spent decades persuading European buyers that diesel was not only more economical than gasoline, but also more environmentally friendly.
They succeeded. Until recently, diesel accounted for more than half of cars sold in Europe, in contrast to the United States and Asian countries, where diesel has only a sliver of the market. Politicians, especially in Germany, helped by passing legislation that ensured diesel was cheaper at the pump than gasoline.
More Europeans are realizing that the “clean diesel” claim was only half true. Diesel engines burn fuel more efficiently than the gasoline engines that prevail in the United States, and produce less planet-warming carbon dioxide. But they also emit more nitrogen oxides, which can cause asthma and other serious lung ailments and are responsible for urban smog.
Carmakers haven’t helped their case by operating in a regulatory gray area in Europe, where porous rules allow manufacturers to manipulate emissions tests for their own benefit. Authorities have said automakers were cheating, just in a legal way.
The diesel scandals have even become an issue in the German national elections scheduled for September. Chancellor Angela Merkel is under fire from critics who say she has been the German auto industry’s de facto chief lobbyist. Berlin pushed in Brussels for subsidies for diesel fuel, and Ms. Merkel once complained directly to California officials about the state’s strict nitrogen oxide limits.
“In light of the diesel scandal, forbidden collusion creates a kind of super meltdown for the credibility of the German auto industry, ” Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Management in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany, said in a statement.