News broke yesterday that Volkswagen's diesel-powered vehicles, such as the Golf SportWagen we recently reviewed, have software that turns on the emissions control system only during emissions testing, allowing the car to produce as much as 40 times the amount of allowed pollutants under normal driving conditions. Because of this, the German auto maker, which has admitted selling 482,000 of these vehicles since 2009, faces potential fines of up to $18 billion ($37,500 fine per vehicle) for its alleged attempt at cheating the clean air system in the U.S. And while it's unlikely VW will have to pay the full $18 billion in fines, it will have to fork over a chunk of change, and its reputation for offering "clean diesel" will likely be damaged and its customers' trust may have been violated. In 2014, 23% of all VWs sold in the U.S. were diesel (Time.com, Oct. 3, 2014). This could have have an effect on VW of America's bottom line, especially since the automaker has been struggling to find sales in the U.S. But on a grander scale, it could affect buyers' opinion of diesel in general.
Volkswagen/Audi is single-handedly responsible for keeping diesel alive in passenger cars here in the U.S. Yes, Chevrolet has offered its diesel-powered Cruze for a couple of years, and BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche offers some diesel vehicles, too. But VW/Audi has been the people's diesel car in a market that still generally thinks diesel cars are slow, gutless, and produce lots of pollution. But now, diesel's stereotype for being a big polluter may only become bolstered, and I wouldn't imagine many other automakers will be wanting to jump on the oil-burning bandwagon anytime soon.
I'd think public opinion of diesel may take a turn for the worse in North America. After all, VW billed its diesels as clean, and they were a tour de force with the environmental crowd who didn't want a gas/electric hybrid. Unfortunately, VW was doing the exact opposite of keeping the air clean, despite putting up impressive fuel economy numbers. It'll be interesting to see if Volkswagens flub will affect diesel sales of the other automakers' diesel vehicles.
In reading through several car forums and automotive websites, it appears some enthusiasts actually applaud VW for trying to beat the EPA's extremely difficult clean air standards for diesel. They look at VW as a rebel; a company not willing to play the EPA's game for emissions standards. But in the grand scheme of things, VW got caught and will have to pay.
Does this mean diesel is doomed in the U.S.? We'll have to wait and see. For now, I'd be willing to bet hybrids will continue to dominate as the choice for those who don't want traditional gasoline engines in their cars.