Navigant Research Blog

European Turn from Diesel Unlikely Due to Scandals

Scott Shepard — April 10, 2017

The revelation of Volkswagen’s (VW’s) diesel emissions cheating is nearing its second anniversary and the automaker is well along in the settlement process. Yet, skepticism about diesel remains strong. Global governments have maintained a steady stream of inquiries into diesel automaker environmental compliance efforts. The latest investigatory announcements are emerging in France and Germany, where diesels accounted for over 50% and 45% of the 2016 market, respectively. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCA), VW, Groupe Renault, and the PSA Group are being investigated in France, while Daimler is under investigation in Germany.

Surprisingly, the sustained scrutiny of diesel has not gutted sales in Europe at a high level. A rising vehicle market on the continent lifted all powertrains, including diesel, last year, though diesel’s rise was markedly low compared to other powertrains. The relatively low rise might be partially attributed to ongoing scrutiny, but this would ignore the fact that diesel share has been falling in Europe since its peak in 2011 at over 55%.

In 2011, diesel accounted for around three out of four vehicle sales in Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Ireland, Spain, and Norway. The next year saw the first deployment of plug-in EVs (PEVs); since then, diesel sales have dropped considerably. Diesel share lost over 20 percentage points in France and Belgium, over 15 in Spain, and over 10 in Luxembourg. Ireland remains unchanged, but Norway, which has the highest level of PEV adoption at 24%, is down by over 45 percentage points. Diesel share in the region is down 6 points overall and plug-ins have been the primary beneficiary, growing from effectively nothing in 2011 to around 1.3% in 2016. Hybrids have also made headway, especially in 2016, moving from 1.3% to over 1.5%.

Across the pond, impacts from the diesel cheat are more striking. VW previously led the diesel car market, and its retreat has had a substantial impact. That impact was partly offset by the introduction of diesel SUVs and trucks from FCA (now also under investigation by the US Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and several state attorneys general), General Motors (GM), and Jaguar Land Rover (JLR). Overall, diesel sales fell 30% in 2016. Unlike in Europe, plug-ins have had less of an impact in the United States on diesel. This is largely due to the fact that diesel in the United States is competing in larger vehicle classes where plug-ins do not perform well. Instead, PEV gains are mainly affecting the once robust US hybrid market that is primarily dominated by small vehicles, where PEVs have the strongest value propositions.

What this means is that, assuming ongoing US investigations do not uncover new revelations that would take the new class of larger diesel vehicles from FCA, GM, and JLR off the market, diesel is likely to return to its marginal pre-VW-scandal share in the United States with some upward potential. But in Europe, dominated as it is by smaller vehicles, diesel sales may continue to fall as other fuel efficient options compete in those segments.

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