In this fourth and final look (previous entries here, here, and here) at the implications of Volkswagen’s #DieselGate, the question is this: what are the implications for electric vehicles (EVs)? Or put differently, if diesel cars are out, how do remaining alternatives fare in an increasingly strict regulatory regime?
First off, it depends if we accept that this is actually – as some have said – the “death of diesel”? While we can doubt if this is not simply an overblown statement, the CEO of Nissan/Renault (update: Renault is now under investigation for manipulating test cycle numbers) Carlos Ghosn believes that we have reached something akin to ‘peak diesel’, and that we will see diesel car ownership decrease in Europe, and never take more than the toehold it has in the US.
If this is the case, what are the implications for the overall vehicle fleet?
Gasoline cars are in the best position to meet near-term and substantial fuel economy improvements – increasingly underway in the US and the EU – though their theoretical performance is undermined by the increasing difference (‘gap factor’) between stated new vehicle fuel economy, and actual on-road fuel economy.
While improving fuel economy and decreasing pollution are firm priorities by cities and countries around the world, laggards abound and leakage is ubiquitous. But at least you can say this for EVs: you can’t mess with an EV’s tailpipe emissions, because it doesn’t have one. Yet, even for EVs there are differences between stated and actual range, and consumers should be watchful that stated metrics are met; if not, it won’t be long until we’re reading about an #EVgate.
There is an overly dramatic tendency to link an incident with a technology (e.g. Fukushima lead Germany to send its nuclear plants to early retirement), but actual change can only take place if there is a ready alternative. Besides increasing availability of EV models on the market along with dropping purchasing prices, local air pollution is rising in importance for urbanites, and together these and other conditions are setting the stage for change.
But where will this change come from? One potential candidate is the culprit itself. It turns out that VW spends the most on R&D out of any company. In the world.
Volkswagen spent €13.1 billion on R&D in 2014, enough to buy a Tesla Model S to about 20,000 people. On that note, Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla) and others agree that VW can play a positive role, and have urged regulators to alter the punishment of VW’s infractions from penalties to incentives to go electric.
That would indeed be an interesting outcome, though VW recently announced it will cut R&D spending by €1 billion per year. We will have to see whether or not VW’s #DieselGate ends up being a costly deception, or a lesson learnt and tipping point for things to come.
As The Economist recently wrote, "If VW's behavior hastens diesel's death, it may lead at last, after so many false starts, to the beginning of the electric-car age."