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Diesel Is [Not] Dead: Diesel Engines vs Electric Motors

Despite its inherent efficiency, unmatched durability and widespread availability, it’s been side-stepped by American automakers for years, regulated out of feasibility in various markets and all but been relegated to a permanent, behind-the-scenes existence. It’s the diesel engine. It’s been around since the 1800s and—while it may never see its fair share of the limelight—it’ll be here much longer than one might think given the rush to go 100-percent electric. While the push for zero emission, battery electric vehicles (BEV’s) dominates headlines, diesel remains in the shadows, powering our military, construction and agricultural equipment (almost exclusively), along with the Class 8 trucks that bring us our goods and the cargo ships that link the global economy together.

Diesel Engines American Manufacturing

Current automotive chatter seems to indicate that BEV’s are on the verge of overtaking the world, but much of the general public knows better. Remember, just 1.3 million EV’s were on the road in the U.S. at the end of 2020, which is less than 1-percent of all vehicles sharing America’s highways. To be sure, BEV’s may eventually dominate the landscape, but it isn’t going to happen until a robust, reliable and permanent infrastructure exists to support it. Below, we’ll touch on the benefits and challenges associated with electrifying the world—then make a case as to why the underdog of all internal combustion engines is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Demonizing Diesel

Volkswagen Jetta TDI 2014 Diesel Car

Not that it applies to every form of compression ignition the world over, but it’s pretty safe to say that Dieselgate took a sledgehammer to diesel’s global reputation. The emissions cheating scandal was uncovered by West Virginia University in 2015 when testing the real-world emissions output of Volkswagen Jetta and Passat TDI’s. The aftermath of the scandal had a profound impact in Europe. Before Dieselgate, not only did diesels make up 60-percent of new car registrations, but tax incentives on both fuel and the vehicles themselves made them the obvious choice for personal transportation.

The Aftermath of Dieselgate

2020 Chevrolet Bolt EV Car

As Kelly Senecal points out in the book “Racing Toward Zero: The Untold Story of Driving Green,” Dieselgate didn’t just alter the public’s perception of diesels, but rather all internal combustion engine technology. In Europe, it sparked a resurgence in gasoline-powered passenger cars, which then led to increased CO2 emission levels (diesels produce as much as 20-percent lower CO2 emissions than comparable gasoline engines). The rapidly rising CO2 levels that’ve stemmed from the switch back to gasoline make it impossible for the European Union to meet its current CO2 target(s). So now the EU (and much of the rest of the world) is on to a new drug: electric.

The Appeal Of BEV’s

Atlis XT Electric Truck Platform

From an emissions-at-the-vehicle perspective, the appeal of BEV’s is understandable. There are no CO2, NOx or PM emissions to worry about (and in fact there isn’t even a tailpipe to worry about). Instead, an BEV’s emissions are traced back to the power plant providing it its charging power and the practices employed when the earth was mined for the ingredients used in producing its batteries. There are also no oil changes, timing belts or failed emissions control components to replace and you’ll have significantly reduced NVH. Sure, you’ll still have wind and tire noise at higher speeds, but internal combustion engine noise is gone forever. Sizable tax credits are also awarded to BEV buyers, which sweetens the deal for drivers who make the switch to electric.

The Offer That Can’t Be Refused

European Diesel Ban

Then comes the coercion aspect of going electric, where governing bodies begin banning internal combustion engines altogether in specific regions. This has already happened in places like Hamburg and Stuttgart, Germany, where diesel engines are now banned in certain areas, and it’s slated to happen for both new gasoline and diesel-propelled vehicles in time (complete bans begin in 2025 in Norway, 2030 in Great Britain, 2035 in California and 2035 in Quebec, Canada). If fossil fuel-burning engines are no longer available, what other choice do you really have?

BEV’s Disadvantages

Fast Charging Station Atlis XT EV

The biggest drawback to any BEV—and this is one we’ve all been promised is a top priority for manufacturers—is range. The average stateside BEV has a range of more than 200 miles at the present time, which would satisfy the majority of Americans’ commuting needs and then some. However, things get interesting in cold climates, where not only can range be reduced by as much as 26-percent, but charging times are slower. Throw in the variable of a BEV towing a heavy trailer in frigid conditions and you could be looking at a range that pales in comparison to what internal combustion engines provide. There is also very little data as to how long a BEV’s battery pack will last. Many have assumed the vehicle warranty on BEV’s as being an accurate indication of its projected battery life. There might not be any oil changes, timing belts or failed emissions control devices to worry about, but how much will an out-of-warranty battery pack cost you?

Elephant In The Room Or Much Ado About Nothing?

Coal Fired Power Plant Electricity Production

At a time when environmentalists are scrambling to shutter coal-fired power plants, how will the increased demand on the electrical grid be met in 2035 and beyond, when tens of millions (possibly even hundreds of millions) of BEV’s require charging? Surely nuclear and geothermal will be here as a steady means of power generation, but how much more reliant will we be on renewable yet intermittent energy resources such as wind and solar? One side warns of a seismic future calamity while the other has promised the grid will be up to the task and is already keeping pace with current BEV expansion. Photo provided by David Jolley.

The Other Elephant In The Room

EV Charging Station Atlis Advanced Charger

Unless you can afford to wait overnight (most Level 1 charging) or at least 3 to 4 hours (Level 2 charging) for your BEV to fully charge, you’ll need a DC fast charging station in your home. However, many DC fast charging stations call for 50 to 100-amps. The average American home has between 100 to 200-amp service. See the problem? Can you really afford to cut your home’s service in half to charge your car? The answer is no, at least not without a considerable upgrade. If you’re on the go a lot, especially after your normal commute to work, a BEV is likely best-suited as a secondary vehicle.

Will BEV’s Be Cost-Effective At The End Of The Day?

Bolt EV Chevrolet Compact Sedan

Without a doubt, current kWh prices (which are on the rise nationwide) would be much easier on the wallet than gasoline or diesel. But with so much tax revenue built into the cost of a gallon of fuel at the pump—money we’re told goes toward building and maintaining our roadways— it begs the question as to what states will do without this revenue stream. In an all-electric world, a mileage tax would likely be implemented. In fact, the current infrastructure bill in Washington includes a pilot program to test the idea of taxing motorists on a per-mile basis.

Diesel Generator Sales Are Through The Roof

Cummins Diesel Backup Generator

While California will likely become the first full-blown BEV “eUtopia” in the U.S. (hey, they get everything first, right?), critical thinkers in the Golden State seem to be preparing for a lack of electric infrastructure. In the South Coast Air Quality Management District region of the state (the greater Los Angeles area), private backup generators increased by 22-percent in 2020 alone. In the Bay area, backup generators are up 34-percent over the past three years. More than 90-percent of them are diesel-powered.

Industries That Will Continue To Embrace Diesel Technology Over Electric

Oshkosh L-ATV Army Duramax Diesel

With automakers and governments highly invested in electric vehicles, the BEV trend is here to stay. But until a whole lot of questions outside of the passenger car segment receive answers you’re going to continue to see diesel stay the course, just as it’s done for 130 years. So long as it isn’t regulated out of existence, you can count on diesel maintaining a strong presence in the marine, farm equipment, construction, Class 8, stand-alone power generation and military sectors for some time to come.

As was alluded to above, some of this information was derived from “Racing Toward Zero: The Untold Story of Driving Green,” a highly informative book authored by Kelly Senecal and Felix Leach, both members of the Society of Automotive Engineers. It’s an important read for any vehicle enthusiast, historian or automotive professional trying to keep up with the current transformation of the automotive industry.

  • This isn’t the first time we’ve challenged the efficacy of BEV’s in automotive realms that’ve traditionally been dominated by diesel. You can revisit our thoughts on the impressive-on-paper, electric Atlis XT right here.
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